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Home » Clarion » 2013 » February 2013 » Viewpoint: Lincoln, Hollywood and History

Viewpoint: Lincoln, Hollywood and History

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s film about the 16th president.

I suppose it was predictable that a historian would have mixed feelings about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Tony Kushner’s screenplay is smart, the cinematography is gorgeous and the acting – notably Daniel Day Lewis’s – is terrific. But Lincoln is also based on several dubious premises about the significance of the events it depicts and about the respective roles of President Lincoln and Congress in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. I liked it as a movie; I wish I could say it was good history.

Lincoln is unusually sophisticated in the way it weaves its themes into a compelling narrative. One of these themes is the relationship between the struggle to abolish slavery and the related, but distinct, struggle for racial equality.

The movie opens with two black Union soldiers, one recently enslaved and the other a free man from Boston, discussing the war with the President. They are very different people, these two men. They dress differently, they speak differently and what they have to say to Lincoln is different. For the Bostonian, the racial discriminations suffered by black soldiers – first the unequal pay and now the lack of promotions – is foremost in his mind. The recently freed slave is clearly frustrated by these complaints. He is fighting for his freedom, not for a promotion. This is no abstract distinction. The ferocity of battle depicted in the film – of black soldiers in unyielding hand-to-hand combat with white Confederates – stemmed from the fact that if they were captured, the black soldiers would not be treated as prisoners of war. They would either be executed or re-enslaved. Screenwriter Kushner is already making his point: racial equality is a critical issue, but right here, right now, it was not an issue that the Civil War would resolve. Slavery was. The two were closely related, but not identical.


This is the same point former slave turned activist Elizabeth Keckley makes to Lincoln late one evening on the White House porch. The President asks her what “your people” will do when the war is over, and, in one of the most moving scenes in the film she answers, “What my people are to be, I can’t say. Negroes have been fighting and dying for freedom since the first of us was a slave. I never heard any ask what freedom will bring. Freedom’s first.” First slavery must end, she says, then we can talk about what comes later.

Whether or not these are sentiments likely to have been expressed by African Americans at the time, Kushner’s historical and political point is right on target. He’s saying: let’s get slavery abolished, then we will settle the meaning of freedom. The struggle over racial equality was destined to take center stage once the war was over, but in order for it to be addressed, slavery must first be destroyed.

Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln comes to terms with the same fact of political life in January, 1865. Despite his admirable commitment to racial equality, Stevens too must shelve that larger, broader project of racial equality – for the time being – because slavery must be abolished first. Kushner returns to the theme near the end of the movie. As Stevens listens to the black woman beside him reading the second article of the Thirteenth Amendment aloud – the clause empowering Congress to enforce emancipation by appropriate legislation – the lips on Tommy Lee Jones’s face curl ever so slightly into a smile. Article I secured emancipation; armed with Article II, he would set about to enforce it.

Party Man

Kushner distinguishes the struggle for racial equality from the struggle to abolish slavery while at the same time recognizing how closely related they were. Few historians have managed this as well, and few commentators have even noticed it. What most people focus on is a second theme – the paradoxical “nobility” of down-and-dirty politics.

Among those of us who’ve studied Lincoln closely, it’s not news that the 16th president was, in his heart of hearts, a politician. He was a party man – at first a devoted Whig and, when that party collapsed, an equally devoted Republican. He worked tirelessly to maintain party unity; he crafted his own positions to insure that they aligned neatly with the official positions of his party. When during the secession crisis Lincoln was pressured to issue a formal statement clarifying his own position, the only thing he would say was that he was a Republican and that his views were those of his party. Those in search of heroes who “rise above politics” will find little inspiration in Lincoln’s biography.

Spielberg’s movie takes dead aim at this anti-political strain in contemporary America. For many people, “politics” is the antithesis of “principle.” Politicians are compromisers, trimmers, people interested in getting and holding onto power rather than using government to pursue the greater good. Lincoln upsets this dichotomy – he is the hands-on, backroom politician, the party boss who pursues power and uses it for one of the noblest ends in our history – the abolition of slavery. He demands compromise, but only in pursuit of great principles. He brings together the radicals and conservatives within his own party so that they may defeat the enemies of emancipation. It is what commentators admire about Lincoln, and I certainly share their admiration.

Nevertheless, the movie develops this theme in troubling ways – ways that compel Kushner to depart from the known historical facts of the Thirteenth Amendment. Most disturbing is the film’s narrow conception of how politics work. Several historians have complained that Lincoln gives no credit to the slaves, whose determination to be free played an integral role in the process by which slavery was destroyed. Kushner responded in a December interview on the PBS show Moyers & Company: “I don’t accept the idea that the only thing to tell about emancipation is that the victims of oppression are always the authors of their own emancipation, because it’s not the case. Frequently people that are severely put upon and severely oppressed don’t have the means…to rise up and destroy [oppression] on their own.”

While there is some truth in this, it scarcely accounts for the large body of scholarship demonstrating the importance of slave resistance during the Civil War. You don’t have to argue that the slaves “freed themselves” to recognize – as Lincoln and his fellow Republicans themselves recognized – that slaves fighting for their own freedom were “indispensable” to Union victory and therefore indispensable to emancipation.

Yet even on its own terms – not as the broad story of how slavery was destroyed but as the smaller, though fascinating, tale of Lincoln and Congress in January of 1865 – the film operates from a cramped conception of how politics work. Indeed, the movie does not fully jettison the anti-politics it attempts to critique, for Lincoln is the story of a man on a white horse, a singular political genius, who goes down into the muck but only to drag everyone else out of it. Lincoln’s fellow Republicans squabble among themselves and Lincoln corrals them into order. He flatters, he twists arms, he promises patronage, he even sanctions bribes – in his determination to bring the radicals and the conservatives within his own party into line. Lincoln sees what Thaddeus Stevens, in his unswerving radicalism, supposedly cannot see: sometimes the best way to get to “true north” is by going around the swamp, not straight through it.

This is not history, its pure fiction – and its fiction in the service of some fairly troubling notions of politics. Do Kushner and Spielberg want us to sanction bribery and political corruption in the name of the greater good? They most likely don’t endorse such methods in contemporary politics. And neither did Lincoln in his time. The evidence that bribes were offered in exchange for votes on the Thirteenth Amendment is sketchy; evidence that Lincoln sanctioned bribery is simply non-existent.

Most troubling of all is the fabrication of a division among Republicans over the Thirteenth Amendment. There was no such division. From the moment their party settled on the amendment in early 1864, they formed a solid, virtually unbroken bloc in support of it. Lincoln has Lincoln herding the cats within his own party, forcing Congressional Republicans into line for the final vote. In reality, Lincoln never mentioned the amendment until after Congressional Republicans had endorsed it and after his own party put it into the 1864 platform on which he ran for re-election.

Thaddeus Stevens

The depiction of Thaddeus Stevens perfectly captures both the strengths and weaknesses of Lincoln. In films about the Civil War, going all the way back to D. W. Griffith’s notorious Birth of a Nation, Stevens has been portrayed as the very essence of demonic fanaticism. Lincoln goes a long way toward correcting that image. Tommy Lee Jones plays Stevens as a deeply committed radical, whose radicalism is in the service of the noble cause of racial equality.

Yet Stevens was, like Lincoln, a skilled political operator, a sharp lawyer and a brilliant parliamentarian. Lincoln depicts Stevens as the leader of the radicals, but he was much closer to being the leader of the Republicans in the House. Stevens chaired the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means and his fellow Republicans made him majority whip. Among the radicals, he was least in need of a basement-kitchen lecture from Lincoln on when to push and when to pull back. Yet his shining moment in the film comes when he defers to Lincoln’s pressure to tone down his racial egalitarianism for the sake of the Amendment. The truth is that Stevens was respected as a leader of his party because his party was united in support of abolition, and nobody in Congress was more skilled at securing that goal than he was.

Presidential Powers

Stevens was notoriously sarcastic in debate, and in the film it’s cathartic to watch him bury his Democratic opponent under a barrage of insults. But Stevens was also the first Republican in Congress, back in August of 1861, to justify emancipation as a military necessity under the War Powers of the Constitution. Stevens’s point was crucial: the laws of war are embedded in the War Powers Clause of the Constitution, and those powers are shared by Congress and the President. This division of powers, Stevens insisted, was the essential protection against executive tyranny. Presidents can’t simply invoke the War Powers to do anything they please; they must be guided by what Congress allows. By contrast, the lecture on War Powers that Kushner puts into Lincoln’s mouth is a veritable brief for the “unitary executive.” Lincoln explains to his cabinet that he and he alone decided to overrule the state laws protecting property because he needed to do so in order to save the Union. Stevens made no such bloated claims for an imperial presidency. Spielberg and Kushner seem to endorse such claims. If that’s a defense of the nobility of politics, I’d just as soon do without it.

James Oakes is a distinguished professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is most recently the author of Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865.

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